LRB Cover

Send letters to:

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and work and home telephone numbers.


Sheer Madness

In his review of two books on Intelligence (LRB, 25 October), Paul Foot refers to my late husband, George K. Young, with the comment that ‘he detested black people.’ That is not correct. My husband detested the Government’s policy on immigration. While, as he held, any society can accommodate some passengers, to allow a great many people of alien tradition to settle in this country and practise self-segregation in the light of cultures incompatible with that of the host society was sheer madness. Apart from this, he would take anyone, whatever the colour of skin, on his own merits.

Géryke Young
London W14

Distaste for Leavis

So Frank Kermode (LRB, 11 October) shares with Noel Annan an ‘acute distaste’ for F.R. Leavis. This must be the twentieth sideswipe at Leavis which I’ve noticed in the papers over the past five years. Each time the unargued jab has almost roused me to defence. Does Leavis need defending? His books remain in print and must continue to inspire and educate. How disappointing that the man now regarded as our senior critic should find it so natural to bad-mouth his great predecessor.

I say ‘great’ advisedly. Leavis’s writings, and his conversation, teemed with the vivid insights of someone selflessly immersed in literature, exceptionally able to see it anew, to feel the rhythm and nuance of remarkable writing and to focus his perceptions in prose of rare and unforgettable intensity. I wish Professor Kermode would look again at pages 175-91 of the hardback New Bearings in English Poetry, on Hopkins; or pages 26-33 of Revaluation, on Marvell and Dryden; or pages 275-80 of D. H. Lawrence: Novelist, on ‘Mother and Daughter’. By the Fifties Leavis was a little more inclined to assert his judgments, a little less supple or sensuously alert in his evoking of the whole effect of a work. But what original judgments they still were! How many of us would certainly be reading Lawrence’s shorter fiction had it not been for Leavis’s advocacy? Or Conrad’s political novels? How likely would Olivier have been to emphasise Othello’s vainglory had Kenneth Tynan not brought Leavis’s essay to his attention?

I suppose I spent hundreds of hours in the Leavises’ company, in lecture and tutorial rooms, in their house, in our lodgings. I wonder if even one remark they made was empty, or mean, or anything other than acutely illuminating. This is not the sort of boast about knowing the famous that Mrs Leavis used to call flank-rubbing. There was nothing bland or buttery about the association. Leavis so disapproved of my left-wing politics that in later years he showed a disinclination to meet or acknowledge me at public events. At Gregynog in Mid-Wales, when we were both speakers at a conference, he simply refused to debate with me on my challenging his view of the British past, which struck me as idealising. In a friend’s garden at Cambridge I took him up on his assertion, in the reprint of Scrutiny, that ‘we [the Scrutiny group] were Cambridge’ and said to him: ‘What about Rutherford and the Cavendish?’ His black eyes flashed their defensive resentment and after some seconds he came back with ‘That was a calculated hyperbole …’ After his death I visited Mrs Leavis, who had been in effect my research supervisor when nobody in the English Faculty had had the sort of commitment I needed to seeing literature in its historical situation. Over the usual delightful home-baked tea she did not scruple to repeat to me her son Robin’s judgment that a book of mine on education typified the forces ‘ruining English in the new universities’. Such were the tonic disagreements that flourished in our part of Our Age.

I find it hard to believe that Professor Kermode’s considered view of what Leavis contributed to the literary culture of this country puts it as low as he allowed himself to imply in that glancing phrase.

David Craig
Burton in Kendal, Cumbria

Young at heart

Would Michael Young’s 13-year-olds (LRB, 25 October – how would they know they were 13?) as easily find their ‘vouchers entitling them to eight further years of education at whatever age they wanted it from 14 to 90’ as they now find their reports and certificates of performance, achievement, attainment etc – i.e. rarely ever on their own? Or is this our fault – the parents, the educators, the crumblies? Or would they still have to apply for copies to the bureaucrats – oops, they don’t exist! – in order to continue their education? Or would it be better if they lost their vouchers altogether, knew not of back-ups (if they existed), how old they were (how old we were?), and if only those with surnames surmounting time (e.g. Young) survived?

W.S. Milne
London SW18

The Great Mary

John Sutherland’s handsomely produced and handsomely reviewed biography of Mrs Humphry Ward might lead unwary general readers to suppose that Mrs Ward is an established classic of English literature. Not having read any of her novels themselves (in all probability), they may now be setting out to buy a copy of Helbeck of Bannisdale, described by your reviewer Dinah Birch as ‘an impressive performance’ (LRB, 13 September), or Marcella or Robert Elsmere or David Grieve. If so, they will come back empty-handed for, according to this month’s microfiche, not a single one of Mrs Ward’s novels is in print. OUP, Virago and Penguin once published a novel each, but apparently no longer.

Yet all the very many people to whom I’ve lent my copies of Helbeck and Marcella during the last few years have expressed their astonishment at not having come upon these novels before, often not even having heard of Mrs Ward. Almost without exception they have agreed that Helbeck is a great novel, one of the very few genuine tragedies in 19th-century fiction. John Sutherland told me that he rates Marcella even higher. Mrs Ward’s handling of questions of faith and loss of faith, of belief pitted against unbelief, her candid rendering of love and passion, give these novels great intensity; and in her descriptions of natural scenery and her creation of rustic dialogue she is, as John Holloway has also said, the equal of Hardy.

We have a notable capacity for neglect. Not so long ago Monteverdi was a great composer whose music most people had never heard, and Bomberg a painter whose work was almost unknown and seldom seen. Surely the time has come for some publisher, some brave publisher with a few ounces of literary conscience (if such there be any longer), to issue a handsome edition, in hard and paper covers, of Mrs Ward’s five or six major novels?

Boris Ford

Freud’s Idols

Much though I enjoyed Adam Phillips’s excellent discourse on the possible role of Freud’s ‘idols’ (LRB, 27 September), I was disappointed to see that, by equating a diffuse notion of religious belief indistinguishable from superstition with an incorrect and exaggerated assessment of the usefulness of psychoanalysis as something not very different from some kinds of idolatry, he could be seen to be giving possible renewed support to one of the more common misunderstandings about the scope and purpose of psycho-analysis as developed by Freud and practised by his followers today. As Adam Phillips knows very well, Freud’s writings are peppered with warnings against seeing psycho-analysis as a panacea against all ills, and it would therefore in my view have made his article even more interesting and helpful if his last sentence had read: ‘And that is a problem for those who have not recently read or reread e.g. Freud’s papers on “The Question of Lay Analysis” (1926) and “Analysis, Terminable and Interminable” (1937).’

Such a reference would not only prevent those still hostile to psychoanalysis from seeing Adam Phillips’s conclusion as lending support to Karl Kraus’s old chestnut about psychoanalysis as a disease proposing itself as its cure; more importantly, it could help those trying to assess and make use of the real values of psychoanalysis to appreciate the difference between the kinds of analysis of the human predicament which proffer solutions by ‘making man fall down and worship the work of his own hands as though it came from heaven’ or any other abstract or mystical location outside himself, and those kinds of analysis of that predicament which endeavour to assist man in understanding the predicament as fully as possible and in acting as adequately as possible within it.

Or, as Freud put it, modestly, realistically and succinctly, ‘the business of the analysis is to secure the best possible psychological conditions for the functions of the ego; with that it has discharged its task.’ As is plain, this ‘business’ is nothing whatever to do with either idolatry or religion or any other system which claims to have found a solution to the challenges facing us as human beings. All psycho-analysis claims to be is a process from which a real possibility arises for a choice to be made between continuing within the constraints of uniformity and, as Kafka puts it in the quotation opening Adam Phillips’s article, ‘mixing profoundly enough with the diversity of the world’.

Paul Ries

It is no doubt a mark of your journal’s remarkable openness to divergent approaches to the various intellectual disciplines that your issue of 27 September includes a sensitive appreciation of the late Sir Peter Medawar and several pages later an extensive essay ‘Freud’s Idols’ by Adam Phillips, ‘the principal child psychotherapist at the Charing Cross Hospital’. Lacan, who is brought in as a trendy sayer of analytic sooths, also remarked: La psychoanalyse est un remède contre l’ignorance. Elle est sans effet contre la connerie. However genuinely helpful much dynamic (non-Freudian) psychotherapy may indeed be, I would suggest that this help has little to do with anything Freud ever actually wrote. A close examination of his texts, including the complete Freud-Fliess correspondence, will, on the other hand, give many instances of scientific and medical connerie.

Phillips’s article is filled with a great deal of forelock-tugging to the myth of Freud as a great man, innovator and, yes – even in 1990! – scientist. I am dismayed to see, after all that has been written on the subject, that in England one can still pull this skein of wool over the reader’s eyes. It is as if Karl Popper had never existed, or as if Adolf Grünbaum had never written The Foundations of Psychoanalysis (1984). In The Freudian Slip ( 1976), the eminent textual critic Sebastiano Timpanaro describes Freud’s methods as not merely unscientific but anti-scientific. The director of the Laboratory of Neurophysiology at Harvard Medical School, J. Allan Hobson, does the same in his recent The Dreaming Brain (1988). Living, like K.R. Eissler, within those confines where only ‘Freudian Paradigms’ count, Phillips has perhaps not read these works.

Among the many philosophical, biographical and medical infelicities that litter this piece of would-be belletrism, one in particular struck me for its highly dangerous implications and (possible) consequences. It reminded me of a trenchant book review by Peter Medawar in which he castigated psychoanalysis as ‘the most stupendous intellectual confidence trick of the 20th century’. Medawar was favourably reviewing the book by the distinguished American neuro-surgeon I.S. Cooper called The victim is always the same. The medically inept and morally grotesque treatment handed out by psychoanalysts to young victims of the neuromuscular disease, dystonia musculorum deformans (DMD), prior to their fortunate meeting with a ‘real’ doctor makes for horrifying reading.

Phillips first demonstrates his philosophical incompetence with the remark: ‘In therapy it is always interesting to ask someone in a state of conviction: what kind of person would you be if you no longer believed that?’ He then concludes: ‘A symptom, of course, is always a state of conviction.’ The insouciant reinforcement of the statement by the addition of ‘of course’ is certainly in line with the grandiose and foolish certitudes so frequently occurring in the Freud-Fliess correspondence: migraine is the consequence of a fantasy of defloration displaced upwards; ‘Dora’ drags a leg because ‘she has made a false step’; women who masturbate suffer ‘gastric pains’ which only the removal of the left middle nasal concha can alleviate.

A reading of the neuro-surgeon Cooper’s work, or even merely of Medawar’s excellent review, should alert the reader to the dangers inherent in Phillips’s phrase. The danger is double-edged. Not only the assumption that some psychological or personality distress is ‘always a state of conviction’ but equally the assumption that what Phillips calls ‘a symptom’ really is one. He must mean by ‘symptom’ some manifestion of conduct or speech seen as the key to the underlying neurosis. Furthermore, he must mean ‘symptom’ as described by the handbooks of Freudian psychoanalysis. Back to the paradigms!

Phillips ends his piece: ‘But the one thing that psychoanalysis cannot cure, when it works, is the belief in psychoanalysis. And that is a problem.’ This attempt at skittish irony is quite unavailing – no more than a pirouette, and a particularly daft one at that. Orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis, using the paradigms established by the Maestro concerning supposedly repressed and supposedly inaccessible (except via analysis) infantile sexual and/or toilet problems, has never worked on anybody anywhere ever.

Robert Wilcocks
Edmonton, Alberta

Duff Poetry

The trouble with Pitt-Kethley’s poems is
They’re written in a line that jogs along
With the required amount of syllables
Like those I’m writing without effort so
That every line comes plunking to an end:
De dum de dum de dum de dum de dum
Until the ear aches to the tramping sound
Of flat-footed Fiona’s soulless feet.
She lacks the ghost of anything resembling
Talent for verse. The fact that she writes poor
Iambics, to my mind, is more important
(And more revealing, too) than that they are
Nasty and brutish. Thank God they’re short!

Danny Karlin